THERE ARE many movie stars I'll follow into the most dismal of movie stories: Sean, Mel, Michelle and Meg, to name a few. But Ethan? Ethan Hawke?

For my subjective money, he's too tentative and uninteresting to drive a good movie. He's still trying to grow a mustache, for crying out loud. Has he moved out from his mom's yet?

So casting Hawke as Ishmael Chambers in a mediocre movie version of "Snow Falling on Cedars" is pretty much the kiss of death.

His pallid presence isn't the only problem, however. Director Scott Hicks, who did "Shine," creates some strong sequences here and there. But the movie -- which he wrote with Ron Bass -- never transports you to another place and time, as it intends to. I didn't read the novel, but I'd be surprised if such a lackluster film conveys any of the book's spirit.

The movie starts and ends as a courtroom murder mystery, swathed in the misty atmospherics of the Pacific Northwest. A young man is killed in the bay of San Piedro Island on a fog-shrouded night in 1950.

Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a local fisherman of Japanese descent, is arrested and tried for his murder. And Ishmael, a fledgling reporter covering the trial, has a personal stake in the matter.

He grew up with Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), who is now married to Kazuo. In high school, Ishmael and Hatsue met regularly under the roots of a large cedar tree, convinced they were destined for each other. But as they grew older and became more serious about each other, the cultural divisions between Japanese and Anglo in this fishing town -- made even more acute by the Pearl Harbor invasion and the war -- threatened to pry them apart.

When the war came, Ishmael watched as Hatsue and her family were led out of town, bound for internment camps. Their romance was over. Now, Hatsue sits behind her husband, waiting to see if Kazuo will be found guilty of murder.

The trial becomes a window to the era's climate of cultural misunderstanding, particularly the enmity, mistrust and internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

But the message, that such bigotry was ignoble, feels forced. Cultural intolerance floats in the air like an official theme balloon. As bigoted townswoman Etta Heine, Celia Weston portrays hatred without dimension, and Sam Shepard fares just as one-dimensionally as Ishmael's liberal-journalist father. And, dramatically, there's an extended wartime internment section that makes us lose touch with the court case.

I was grateful to Max von Sydow, however, for riveting my attention during his precious few moments on screen. As Kazuo's defense attorney, Nels Gudmundsson (and who else would play a character called Nels Gudmundsson?), he's a man of dignity with a twinkly eyed sense of humor. When the judge suggests that von Sydow act his age, he replies "If I did, your honor, I'd be dead." But such moments are, obviously, not enough.

SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (PG-13, 127 minutes) -- Contains some violence, strong language and strong emotional themes. Area theaters.